Nature morte au melon vert is an outstanding example of Cézanne’s still-lifes, demonstrating the extraordinary freedom and audacity of style, and the confidence and assured quality of the artist’s technique that characterised his late years. The genre of still-life preoccupied Cézanne since the earliest days of his career, and the stylistic changes visible in his still-lifes reflect the overall development of his art. During the first decade of his artistic production, he executed a number of still-lifes, romantic in feeling, but based on his close observation of reality (see fig. 1). In the next two decades, his pictorial language became more sophisticated and his compositions more complex (see fig. 2). In the 1890s his still-lifes achieved their peak with a number of paintings and watercolours depicting various objects, usually fruit, jugs and baskets, placed on a table top (see fig. 3). Using a relatively narrow range of elements, in every composition Cézanne rearranged them in such a way as to create a pictorial statement of remarkable grandeur and profundity. In each new composition, the artist viewed the objects at his disposal with a fresh eye, arranging them in unexpected ways, changing proportions and establishing new formal and spatial relationships.
Having fully established his unique style, after 1900 he achieved a freedom of execution and expression beautifully exemplified by Nature morte au melon vert. Here, he delineated the contours of his objects with blue pigment, and saturated the sheet with green, red and yellow watercolor, to such an extent that the work achieves the freshness and vibrancy of an oil painting. The kitchen table on which the objects are assembled, usually somewhat depicted in the middle distance (see figs. 4 & 5), has in the present work moved to the front, so that it occupies the entire lower half of the work. The upper half displays the blue background representing a wall, or possibly the blue curtain that appeared in a number of 1890s still-lifes. Cézanne achieved a dynamic composition by juxtaposing objects of different shapes and sizes, and by contrasting the emphatic linearity of the contours with the looser, free brushwork from which the objects are created.
John Rewald described the present work: "A green melon, while not the central element of the composition, nevertheless constitutes its focus. It is flanked on one side by an undefined object (possibly a mending-basket with white linen) and on the other by a branch with leaves, presumably of an almond tree. The vivid texture of this branch contrasts with the large, circular shape of the melon. Further contrasts are provided by a blue glass in front of the melon, as well as by a single, small round fruit (an apple or peach) whose yellow and red colors introduce a special accent. There is no preparatory pencil sketch. The transparent tints are applied in broad and sweeping washes, though some blue outlines, notably those of the green melon, have been retraced a number of times with the kind of staccato brushstrokes that appear also in other works of these years. The background shows more or less regular, vertical stripes that are similarly featured in other late still lifes; they are mostly green and blue. The empty foreground is alive with broad touches of pink, blue, and ocher. Several holes in the four corners would seem to indicate that the artist had repeatedly used tacks to attach the sheet on his drawing board. This can be interpreted as a sign that Cézanne did not finish works of this importance in a single session but devoted several sittings to them" (John Rewald, op. cit., p. 246).
Cézanne’s still-lifes have long been recognized as being among his greatest achievements, the works which demonstrate most clearly the innovations that led to the stylistic developments of early twentieth-century art. Both art historians and artists have argued that Cézanne reached the very pinnacle of his genius within the discipline of the still-life, as this genre – unlike portrait or plein air painting – allowed him the greatest time in which to capture his subject. The young painter Louis le Bail described how Cézanne composed a still-life: "The cloth was very slightly draped upon the table, with innate taste. Then Cézanne arranged the fruits, contrasting the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be, using coins of one or two sous for the purpose" (quoted in John Rewald, Cézanne: A Biography, New York, 1986, p. 228).
Discussing Cézanne’s works of this genre, Roger Fry noted that Cézanne "is distinguished among artists of the highest rank by the act that he devoted so large a part of his time to this class of picture, that he achieved in still-life the expression of the most exalted feelings and the deepest intuitions of his nature. Rembrandt alone, and that only in the rarest examples, or in accessories, can be compared to him in this respect. For one cannot deny that Cézanne gave a new character to his still-lifes. Nothing else but still-life allowed him sufficient calm and leisure, and admitted all the delays which were necessary to him for plumbing the depths of his idea. But there, before the still-life, put together not with too ephemeral flowers, but with onions, apples, or other robust and long-enduring fruits, he could pursue till it was exhausted his probing analysis of the chromatic whole. But through the bewildering labyrinth of this analysis he held always like Ariadne’s thread, the notion that changes of color correspond to movements of planes. He sought always to trace this correspondence throughout all the diverse modifications which changes of local color introduced into the observed resultant […] it is hard to exaggerate their importance in the expression of Cézanne’s genius or the necessity of studying them for its comprehension, because it is in them that he appears to have established his principles of design and his theories of form" (Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of His Development, Chicago, 1927, pp. 37 & 50).
Fig. 1, Paul Cézanne, Pot vert et bouilloire d’étain, 1867-69, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Fig. 2, Paul Cézanne, La Table de cuisine, 1888-90, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Fig. 3, Paul Cézanne, Rideau, cruchon et compotier, 1893-94, oil on canvas, formerly in the collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney
Fig. 4, Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au pot au lait bleu, 1900-06, watercolor and pencil on paper, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Fig. 5, Paul Cézanne, Nature morte avec grenades, carafe, sucrier, bouteille et pastèque, 1900-06, watercolor and pencil on paper, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Fig. 6, Paul Cézanne, Nature morte avec pastèque entamée, circa 1900, watercolor and pencil on paper, Fondation Beyeler, Basel
Watercolor and pencil on paper
Tübingen, Kunsthalle and Zurich, Kunsthaus, Cézanne Aquarelle, 1982, no. 94, illustrated in color in the catalogue
12 3/8 by 18 3/4 in. 31.5 by 47.5 cm
Lionello Venturi, Cézanne. Son art, son oeuvre, Paris, 1936, vol. I, mentioned p. 350
Lionello Venturi (revised), (as dating from 1900-05)
Georg Schmidt, Aquarelle von Paul Cézanne, Basel, 1952, illustrated pl. 25 (as dating from circa 1900)
Yvon Taillandier, Paul Cézanne, Paris, 1961, illustrated p. 71
Jiøí Siblík, Paul Cézanne. Dessins, Prague, 1968, illustrated pl. XII
Masterpieces from the Robert Von Hirsch Sale, London, 1978, pp. 142-143
Götz Adriani, Paul Cézanne: Aquarelle, Cologne, 1981, no. 73, illustrated in color
Götz Adriani, Cézanne Watercolors, New York, 1981, no. 94, illustrated in color
Götz Adriani, Cézanne Watercolors, New York, 1983, illustrated pl. 72 and on the cover
John Rewald, Paul Cézanne. The Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1983, no. 610, catalogued p. 246, illustrated
Jiøí Siblík, Cézanne, Drawings and Watercolors, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1984, no. 44, illustrated in color pl. XII
Paul Smith, Interpreting Cézanne, London, 1996, illustrated pp. 40-41, fig. 33 and illustrated on the cover
Ambroise Vollard, Paris
Estate of the above
Edouard Jonas, Paris
Paul Rosenberg, Paris and New York (acquired from the above on June 23, 1939)
Robert von Hirsch, Basel (acquired from the above in October 1949 and sold: Sotheby Parke Bernet, London, The Robert von Hirsch Collection, June, 27 1978, lot 836)
The British Rail Pension Fund (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby’s, London, Impressionist and Modern Art, The Property of the British Rail Pension Fund, April 4, 1989, lot 17)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner